Do you feel dizzy when you first wake up in the morning? How about in the middle of the day when you’re trying to work? Have you ever woken up in the night and felt lightheaded? If so, you could be suffering from lack of sleep dizziness.
Sleep loss has a broad range of symptoms that affect everyone differently. Although it’s not one of the primary symptoms of sleep loss, dizziness can accompany a poor night’s sleep. You may even get a headache or feel nauseous at the same time. Here’s how lack of sleep may cause dizziness and how to treat it.
According to the University of Michigan’s Medical Department, dizziness can have two different meanings. When you tell your doctor that you feel dizzy, it’s important to know the difference so that a proper diagnosis can be made. Being lightheaded is characterized by the feeling that you are going to pass out or faint (1). Despite feeling dizzy, you don’t always feel like the room around you is spinning. Lightheadedness usually goes away on its own or when you rest. Some people also feel nauseous or may vomit when they feel lightheaded (1).
Research suggests that it is common to feel lightheaded at times. Brief periods of being lightheaded might not indicate a serious condition. It is usually caused by a lack of blood flow to your brain or a drop in blood pressure. You may experience this when you stand up from a chair too quickly. People who experience ongoing lightheadedness might have a serious problem. Common causes may include:
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep loss
- Drug, tobacco and alcohol use
- Deep or rapid breathing such as hyperventilating
- Some illnesses, including the common cold or an infection
- Conditions that cause dehydration, such as vomiting or diarrhea
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Prescription and nonprescription drugs
Dizziness can also refer to a condition known as vertigo. It occurs when there is a dysfunction between the signals sent to the brain by the parts of your body that are responsible for balance. The most common symptom is feeling like your surroundings are moving even though they aren’t. You may also feel like you are spinning, falling, whirling, tilting, or off balance. People with severe vertigo may vomit or feel nauseous. They may have trouble standing or walking, which causes them to lose their balance and stumble or fall (1).
Despite being the most prevalent in the older population, anyone can experience dizziness. If dizziness is severe enough, it may cause social impairment or fear of going out in public. The brain uses four systems to maintain balance. First, your vision lets you know where your body is in relation to your surroundings. Your vision overrides information sent from the other systems in your body that manage your balance. Next, your sensory nerves located in your joints tell your brain where your torso, legs, and arms are at all times. This helps your brain make changes in your position to keep your balance.
Third, your skin pressure sensation alerts your brain about your body’s range of motion. Sensing pressure from contact with your environment can make you aware of your surroundings. Finally, there is a portion of your inner ear called the labyrinth that contains specialized cells that detect motion. Diseases or injuries of the inner ear may cause these cells to send false signals to the brain, which can make you feel dizzy. When these false signals conflict with accurate signals that are transmitted by the other balancing systems of the body, vertigo may occur. Other common causes of vertigo may include (1):
- An inner ear infection or injury to the head
- Decreased blood flow to the brain
- Lack of sleep
- Migraine headaches
- Brain tumors or noncancerous growths behind the ears
- Abusing medicines, drugs or alcohol
Can Lack Of Sleep Cause Dizziness?
While dizziness might not be as common as other symptoms of sleep loss, it may happen in some cases. A 2010 study evaluated the effects of sleep apnea syndrome on the central and peripheral vestibular systems (2). Researchers utilized 45 patients who suffered from sleep apnea syndrome and compared them with a group of 30 healthy volunteers. Patients with sleep apnea syndrome underwent cardio-respiratory function monitoring while they slept to determine the severity of their condition. Both groups were given a series of the same tests to determine the status of their peripheral and vestibular systems. Researchers concluded that the patients with sleep apnea syndrome experienced idiopathic dizziness as a result of their peripheral system becoming hypo-reflexic and their central vestibular system correcting the lack of equilibrium (2).
Another 2010 study confirmed these findings when researchers evaluated patients with Ménière’s Disease, which is characterized by dizziness, vertigo symptoms, ringing in the ear, ear pressure, and a spinning sensation. The study involved 35 patients with active Ménière’s Disease. They were hooked up to a polysomnography all night long, and a sleep medicine specialist evaluated their sleeping patterns. The results of their sleep were compared to a group of 35 patients with healthy sleep habits for their designated gender and age. Results showed that patients with Ménière’s Disease had more sleep arousals than healthy subjects. Researchers concluded that the lack of sleep and elevated arousal index was positively associated with Ménière’s Disease. Furthermore, lack of sleep may elevate stress levels in patients with the disease and worsen their symptoms (3).
Like many health conditions, lack of sleep and dizziness can be interchangeable. For example, dizziness can cause sleep loss just as lack of sleep can cause dizziness. A small study of three patients with vertigo conducted in 2009 by Sleep Research Online found that dizziness may cause sleep problems (4). Specifically, the study indicated that the patients with vertigo symptoms had a total of 14 head movements during sleep. All patients suffered from poor sleep quality, and 13 of the 14 head movements were followed by a period of wakefulness (4). This study may explain how dizziness causes sleep loss and vice versa.
One explanation for dizziness and lack of sleep is that the brain undergoes several changes at night that may have adverse reactions. For instance, a substance called cerebrospinal fluid flows through your brain to clean toxins from cells while you sleep. This process is thought to detox brain cells that accumulate toxins during wakeful periods and may help reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. But a 2017 study found that cerebrospinal fluid may leak and cause dizziness or headaches (7). Another study found that low levels of cerebrospinal fluid may cause head pain with symptoms that may include vomiting, nausea, dizziness, balance problems, vertigo, altered hearing, vision problems, and stiffness in the pain and neck (8).
It should be noted that these cases are rare and only occur in about 15 percent of the population (7). A cerebrospinal fluid leak can be disguised as another condition, which makes it hard to diagnose. For example, orthostatic hypotension, which occurs when there is dizziness upon standing, can be confused with a cerebrospinal fluid leak. Patients with vertigo or fluid in their middle ear might mistake their condition as a cerebrospinal fluid leak. Finally, different fluids are known to run out of the nose and should be investigated before a cerebrospinal fluid leak is confirmed (7).
Research shows there is a link between panic attacks and sleep apnea. If you’re prone to anxiety, a panic attack could leave you feeling dizzy. A 2003 study published in the journal Sleep Review found that people who have nocturnal panic attacks could also have a sleeping disorder (9). Panic attacks cause at least one of the following symptoms: sweating, shakiness, trembling, heart palpitations, nausea, dizziness, fainting, or lightheadedness. Panic attacks can also cause hot flashes, chills, abdominal pain, and a sudden rush of overwhelming fear. Conditions such as obstructive sleep disorder, sleep-related seizures, sleep-related gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and sleep-related laryngospasms can wake you up in the middle of the night with a panic attack that leaves you feeling dizzy (9).
In some cases, your sleep position may be causing you to feel dizzy. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Vestibular Research: Equilibrium & Orientation found that sleeping with your head at a 45-degree angle with your vertigo-affected ear facing down can cause you to experience dizziness. The study evaluated the head position during sleep of 50 patients with vertigo for three days and compared the results to 25 healthy patients. Researchers attached a gravity sensor to the middle of the vertigo patient’s foreheads at home while they slept. The position of their head was measured every five seconds. Results showed that patients with the affected ear facing down and the head positioned at a 45-degree angle could be a factor in the onset of vertigo (5).
Another study investigated the association between vertigo and sleeping with the side of your head facing down. Based on previous research, authors of the study thought that sleeping on the side of the head that was affected by vertigo might make the condition worse. Approximately 142 patients were evaluated. They were asked to take an assessment that included listing their favorite head-lying side position during sleep. About 82 patients had vertigo in their right ear while 54 had left-sided vertigo. Six patients had vertigo in both ears. Results showed that 97 of the patients slept with their head facing down on the right side while 45 laid on the left side. Researchers concluded that there was a positive association between the patients who slept with their affected ear facing down (6). These results suggest that your sleep position may be a contributing factor to dizziness.
Tips For Improving Lack of Sleep Dizziness
If you feel dizzy in the middle of the night or when you first wake up, you might benefit from changing your sleep position. If you experience symptoms of vertigo on one side of your ear, avoid sleeping on that side of your head. Instead, try sleeping on your back so that there is no shift in the materials in your ear that causes vertigo. If you sleep with only one pillow, you may want to add a second pillow to prop your head up for more stability. If your dizziness is related to an ear infection or a buildup of fluid in the ear, try using a wedge pillow so that the fluid can drain and does not accumulate in your ear.
When you wake up first thing in the morning, avoid getting up too quickly. Allow yourself to rest a few minutes peacefully in bed before carefully sitting up. Move slowly as you get out of bed. Place both feet flat on the floor to establish your balance and only stand up when you feel stable enough. Quick movements of the head can cause dizziness. So can loud noises. Avoid using a loud alarm to wake up in the morning. Instead, try waking up to classical music or another sound that doesn’t jolt you awake. Some people even use lights as an alarm instead of a sound.
You can do things during that day that make you extra tired at night, such as exercising or doing yoga. According to a 2014 study published in Frontiers of Psychiatry, yoga has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and panic disorders (10). Panic disorders are characterized by brief periods of dizziness, among other symptoms. The study took 22 patients with a panic disorder and evaluated whether the combination of psychotherapy and yoga improved their condition. Results showed that the combination of yoga and psychotherapy had significant improvements in the patient’s panic levels (10). Researchers of the study suggested using other forms of mind-body connections to treat panic, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Some people get lightheaded when they are hungry or have gone extended periods without eating. Keep your meals small and frequent throughout the day. If vertigo or dizziness keeps you awake at night, a gentle sleep aid might be able to help you get through the symptoms. Herbs such as ginkgo and ginger have been shown to reduce dizziness. Supplementing with vitamin B6 or drinking chamomile tea may also help. A 2011 study found that chamomile has soothing properties that have been used to treat motion sickness, dizziness, and lightheadedness (11). Chamomile also helps you sleep by relaxing the nervous system and providing a light sedative effect. Enjoy a cup before bed in place of alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.